This is how it went, as I remember from five years ago. Each morning, the theology students get freshened up and then arrive at the tent where they pick up their stuff. Their truck drives up as well. Someone fills a large drum with kerosene, then it's manhandled into the truck. Some empty 5-litre containers are thrown in, as well as bags of that very important part of the day's operations: bleaching powder. Elsewhere, the guys are collecting gumboots, thick rubber gloves and masks.
Done with all this, they pile into the truck and are off, cracking morbid jokes to keep their spirits up.
I join them for I no longer remember how many days -- it turns into a long, mind-numbing, back-wrenching, stinking and simply horrible job. But I do remember the unfailing good humour, the energy, the dedication. Without those things, these guys would not have lasted a day doing what they were. An hour.
Where we were, of course, was in Erasama -- the gobsmacked heart of devastation in cyclone-smacked Orissa, 1999. What these guys were doing, of course, was disposing of dead bodies. Of which there were so many -- so numbingly, heartbreakingly many even days after the storm had receded -- that the people working in Erasama inevitably turned to black humour only to keep our collective despair at bay. "Dekh," I hear one of my mates say, pointing to a man who watches us rumble by, "dekh, dead body khada ho gaya!" ("Look, the dead body's standing!").
We get into a routine with the bodies, or as much of a routine as you can with ghastly work like this. "Look at her bangles!" someone calls out as we approach an otherwise gender-neutral once-human. The bangles tell us both that she was a she and that she was likely married. It hardly matters now, of course. With shovels and branches and simple strength, much as we did earlier with the drum into the truck, we muscle the once-lady onto a pyre made of branches and drenched in kerosene. Panting and drenched in sweat, we set fire to it. One more victim of this storm gets her last earthly ritual.
And the students must do this with human bodies, but also with sheep and much-heavier cattle carcasses. And they must do it in the stinking fields, or nearly-impenetrable bushes, where the bodies lie. The easiest turns out to be a baby, no more than a collection of black hair and skin, lying in the middle of the road we are on.
Oddly, it also turns out to be the most difficult.
And it isn't just the theology students. As I wrote at the time, plenty of others are doing the same numbing work: RSS and Ananda Marg and Islamic youth group volunteers, frail nuns, CRPF jawans and many more. A team from the Army's Assam Rifles, caps jauntily on their heads always, not only cremates the bodies, but stands in formation around the pyre and salutes. Each time.
Another frightful disaster struck at the end of December 2004. When I get to Tamil Nadu, I once again find teams doing this thankless, brutal work. They are there within days, and they work just as selflessly.
Take the wasteland -- find me another word for this vast soulless horror-scape of slush, stinking debris, mud, nets and dog and cat and human carcasses, and I'll use that word -- the wasteland in Akkarapettai, outside Nagapattinam. It takes us over an hour to find a way through the slime and stench, in the quickly fading light, to where some men and two women are working away. Dr Lakshmi Narasimhan -- a tall, gently-spoken Salem doctor -- and his team greet the dusk in the only way that makes any sense in this post-tsunami nightmare. Like the theology students in Erasama, they pick up and burn bodies. Like the theology students, they do it unmindful of the horrible conditions.
In fact, in some ways they are worse off than the students were in Orissa: they have no organised source for rubber gloves or kerosene. They use thin surgical gloves that tear with every heave on a piece of timber. Because kerosene is in short supply, they use the little bits of it they find lying in cans amid the debris. Yet they go on. And on.
We are only 500 metres from Akkarapettai -- given the slime, these are 500 greatly difficult metres, but it is really just a small distance. But this team -- from the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), a CPM-affiliated organisation -- is the only team that's out this far to burn bodies. Looking around where I stand, I can see eight bodies. From what Dr Narasimhan tells us, there are more dead bodies strewn all the way to where the sun finally sets; well, 5 km in that direction, anyway, and all of it covered in the same rotting slime we've seen so far. Apart from these guys, nobody is interested in coming out even this far for this work. How will those other bodies be retrieved and burned?
Nearby is a little form -- sex, age and even humanity wiped clean -- lying in a carton. Sprawled in the muck nearby is another. His or her brother? Mother? In front is a collapsed hut; one body lies on the roof as if taking a nap. Two DYFI men lift the crumpled thatch roof; there are more bodies below. They manage to pull one out -- a boy? -- and put him on top with the other one (his father?). The others, entangled in nets and timber and whatever was inside the hut, are too difficult to extract.
Then they set fire to the once-hut. Just so do Veerappan, his wife Parvati, their daughter Pasupati, their sons Ganesh, Dinesh and Abhi, go up in flames. We stand there as the heat from the flames caresses our faces, read their names out loud from a sodden exercise book that lay at our feet. At least this much, we can do for them.
Dr Narasimhan and his comrades are done for today. They are already talking about where in the muck they will go, first thing tomorrow morning. They point west, towards the almost-gone sun. They, and I, know they will have to wade through the slime yet again. But that doesn't even rate a mention in their plans.
There's enough in these disaster areas to leave you desolate and exhausted. But there's also enough to inspire. And the thing that inspires me most is the spirit in the people I meet. I've spent five years wondering why a gang of theology students would travel a thousand miles to a desperate place and start burning dead bodies, five years marvelling at their strength. I have no answers that make sense. Instead, after these five years, I found more people doing the same thing. This time in Tamil Nadu.
What drives those students? What drives a doctor from Salem and his friends?
I don't know. But I know this much. If anything gives me hope for India, it is not the grand words of politicians, nor of columnists who trumpet outsourcing and the imminent rising of the Indian elephant. It is, instead, the Dr Narasimhans of my country. Their spirit is my future.